LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell stood stiffly behind the hotel ballroom podium Friday night as he tried to fire up a few hundred Republican activists. He has never needed them more.
This year, as McConnell faces one of the toughest Senate elections, he is staring at polls that show his approval rating in his home state is even worse than that of President Obama, who is deeply disliked by many here.
Even in his hometown among party faithful at Friday night’s county Republican reception, McConnell received second billing. Senator Rand Paul, elected in 2010 in a wave of Tea Party movement fervor, was the night’s host, keynote speaker, and most-applauded politician. McConnell was relegated to “special guest” status.
The sight of this old-guard Southern standard-bearer having to scramble has made his battle for survival the most watched election in the country in a year in which the US Senate could be hanging in the balance.
McConnell’s job as the most powerful Republican in the Senate has made him a top target of both Democrats and archconservatives from around the country, with both portraying him as a symbol of all that is wrong with Washington. Democrats blame him for gridlock and dysfunction, while conservatives in the Tea Party movement say he is not pure enough, a dreaded compromiser.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars are pouring in from around the country to support his Democratic opponent, whose campaign is hosting former president Bill Clinton in Kentucky on Tuesday. Funds are also flowing to a primary challenger from the right.
McConnell’s reelection is rated a tossup, but he is still considered by many as a favorite, not least because he has survived scares before.
“It’s a different race if you’re the leader,” McConnell said during Friday’s event, pointing to tough elections for Senate leaders in both parties during the last decade, including his own race six years ago. “I don’t have any sense of entitlement. I don’t own this seat. I have to earn it, and I’ll earn it both in the primary and the general.”
A national Tea Party group plastered Louisville with menacing “Retire Mitch” signs last week that looked like horror movie posters. Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic super political action committee, aired television ads across the state last summer dubbing McConnell the “Guardian of Gridlock.”
It is a bitter turn for McConnell, who helped galvanize his party’s base by vowing at the beginning of Obama’s administration to make him a one-term president, then committed to a strategy of obstruction.
But the intransigence may have backfired, at least for McConnell. Yes, Obama has suffered greatly. But the poison atmosphere in Washington has tarnished both men’s standing. Just 32 percent of Kentucky voters approve of McConnell’s job performance, according to a recent Louisville Courier-Journal poll.
“He’s been the personification of the ‘Party of No,’ ” said David Grider, a 50-year-old district chairman of the state Republican Party who said he has known and supported McConnell since he was 15. “That’s his job. You can’t have a good P.R. campaign, having to stand up to the president all the time.”
But not standing up to the president also carries a high cost. McConnell endured a fresh set of attacks from conservative groups after he cast a key procedural vote this month to let Obama raise the nation’s borrowing limit. McConnell’s Tea Party movement-backed opponent, Matt Bevin, sounded off on Twitter — blasting out a mock check from McConnell to Obama for “as much as you want (it’s not my money).”
McConnell and other Republican leaders wanted to avoid the distraction of another fiscal standoff that badly damaged his party and instead focus on Obama’s health care law.
Despite polls that show him nearly even with Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, many political observers say that McConnell, above all else, is a keen tactician, a survivor who understands politics in Kentucky just as well as he does politics in Washington. He was first elected to the Senate in 1984, defeating a Democratic incumbent by less than 1 percent with a famous ad that showed bloodhounds unable to locate his opponent. Two of his four challengers since then have come within 6 percentage points of beating him.
Should McConnell win election once again, good things could be in store for him. If Republicans capture the six additional seats the party needs to win control of the Senate, it would make McConnell, 72, majority leader, his lifelong quest.
“I’ve been — shall I say — the defensive coordinator in the Senate for seven years,” McConnell said during Friday’s speech. “You can score on defense, but it’s a lot harder to score on defense than it is on offense.”
Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report, which rates congressional races across the country, puts the odds of a Republican takeover of the Senate at 40 percent. Those odds could improve if the party’s top candidates survive their primaries.Most competitive races are in conservative states where Democrats are in danger of losing power — including North Carolina, Arkansas, and Louisiana.
McConnell’s race in Kentucky and another in Georgia are the two contests where Democrats have their best opportunities to gain seats.
A recent drive across the snow-covered farmland in the north of Kentucky confirmed attitudes expressed in polls. People from all points of the political spectrum said they were disillusioned with politicians from both parties and dispirited by the economy.
Eugene Stepp, a Republican from Independence, Ky., would seem like a McConnell supporter. The 55-year-old truck driver rolled his eyes at the mere mention of Obama, blaming the president for his reduced earnings. Yet he is not pleased with McConnell either, furious that the minority leader ended the government shutdown in October with a deal that boosted spending to nearly $3 billion on a dam project that helped his home state.
“I just thought it was wrong because the government started back up and he was the only one who got any money out of the deal,” Stepp said.
McConnell has long campaigned as a politician who could bring home the pork to a state badly in need. He released an ad last month highlighting his role in creating a cancer-screening program in Western Kentucky for workers at a nuclear power plant. It echoed ads he has run in past campaigns.
At the same time, McConnell has tried to co-opt the Tea Party movement, hiring a top Rand Paul adviser to manage his campaign. Though McConnell backed Paul’s opponent during the 2010 GOP primary, the two have since formed an uneasy alliance. Paul provided a crucial, early endorsement of McConnell in this race.
“He’s hanging on to Rand Paul for dear life to get him through this,” said Bernie Kunkel, a 60-year-old conservative activist who left his job as Paul’s regional field representative to work for Bevin’s campaign.
But even as McConnell has tried to tame the Tea Party movement, he and his allies have also played hardball. The National Republican Senatorial Committee led an effort among establishment Republican groups to blackball a conservative advertising firm that had produced ads attacking McConnell, a signal to conservatives around the country that there would be consequences this year to bucking the party.
In a church sanctuary just across the Ohio River in Cincinnati recently, with temperatures outside in the single digits, Bevin — McConnell’s primary challenger — was recruiting volunteers at a Tea Party movement meeting to help his long-shot bid to win the Republican nomination. The speakers ahead of him talked about the “march toward tyranny” and accused McConnell of voting “for all the socialist bailouts.”
Bevin is a 47-year-old businessman in a gray checked suit who looks more like a corporate executive than an insurgent. Though he will not call himself a Tea Party movement member, he promised limited constitutional government and pledged to join Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, two favorites of the Tea Party movement, in remaking the Republican Party with people “who will fight, who will truly be willing to get their teeth kicked in.”
He said McConnell and other mainstream Republicans have been bought off by the establishment.
“You go there that long, you lose your way,” Bevin said. “We are on the cusp of losing our grip on this republic.”
Few political observers believe Bevin, who has $500,000 in available cash and is badly behind in the polls, can win the nomination. But the barrage of attacks against McConnell, from Bevin and his national allies, could erode McConnell’s support in a general election race against Grimes.
“Even his own party is dissatisfied with the 28 years of failed leadership,” Grimes said, adding that McConnell is “about the special interests and insiders in Washington.”
McConnell is on a feverish fund-raising pace in what many analysts predict will be the year’s most expensive congressional election. He has raised about $20 million this cycle and had $10.9 million in cash at the end of December. That is triple the amount that Democrat Grimes had. She has raised a total of about $4.6 million and had $3.3 million in cash.
Grimes is a 35-year-old secretary of state from a well-known political family. This week, former president Clinton, a close family friend, plans to appear with her at a Louisville hotel, a signal both of his friendship and of the Democrats’ keen desire to oust McConnell.
Polls show the two candidates nearly even. But Grimes is an unseasoned candidate and seems well aware of McConnell’s three closing arguments: Obama, Obama, and Obama.
In interviews, she takes pains to distance herself from the president, not even answering whether she would vote for him again if given the chance.
“Last time I checked, “ she said, “this election is about the United States Senate and who will represent the people of Kentucky.”Noah Bierman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @noahbierman.